I guess now is as good a time as any to feature the American white pelican.

After all, many of them will be passing through soon, if they haven’t already started.

When many people think about birds heading south for the winter, they might picture a skein of Canada geese in a V-formation, flying along and honking on a cold, cloudy day.

But this time of year, and well into October, people may see white pelicans migrating overhead and won’t be sure what they are. Many will guess that the birds might be whooping cranes or storks.

And while a squadron of white pelicans can be seen in a V-formation, more often than not, they’ll be floating around in circles.

The sky dance of migrating white pelicans is, to me, like a waltz. Whereas you’ll often see geese and sandhill cranes flying straight in one direction, white pelicans float along, casually taking their time.

It really is a sight to behold. And their massive size makes it even more impressive. They have wingspans of 9 feet!

I love to watch them dance from one horizon to another, which often takes a while.


American white pelicans are very large birds. Their wingspans of up to 9 feet are among the largest of all the birds in the United States, second only to California condors. And white pelicans can weigh up to 30 pounds.

The primary and outer secondary wing feathers of white pelicans are black. However, the inner secondaries are white. This is visible when the birds are in flight.

If you are unfamiliar with wing feathers, just know that feathers on the front of the wings are called coverts. The secondaries and primaries are the feathers on the back half of the wings, with secondaries being on the inner half of the wing and primaries being on the outer half.


Lakes, shallow wetlands, inland marshes and large ponds. At lakes, they’re often seen in shallow water and gathered on sandbars.


American white pelicans mostly eat small- to medium-sized fish by scooping them up out of the water with their large bills.

Sometimes, white pelicans will work together to herd fish into the center of a group for easier picking. According to the National Audubon Society, white pelicans on rivers, lakes, and ponds will circle together and gradually enclose the circle until the minnows they have been chasing are contained in a frenzied cloud and the pelicans can feast on them.

Though they mostly eat fish, white pelicans will also eat invertebrates and the occasional small amphibian, or smaller bird.


The American white pelican is mostly a migratory bird. Many agencies list the white pelican as wintering along the Pacific and Gulf coasts, as well as a large portion of Texas, pretty much south of Dallas. However, I have seen large groups of them at Lake Texoma and Lake Hefner and Lake Overholser in Oklahoma City during all months of the winter. So I’m going to say that they are winter residents in Oklahoma.

And we have had them visit Pontotoc County. I’ve seen and photographed them at Wintersmith Park. An Ada News reader called me a couple of years ago to tell me there were many seen at a large flood control pond near Union Valley off Old Highway 3.

Odds and ends

• When determining just what white birds may be flying overhead, know that whooping cranes have long necks and black primary wing feathers only, whereas the primary and outer secondary wing feathers of white pelicans are black. Wood storks have dark, unfeathered heads and very black flight feathers that run the entire length of the wings.

• According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, pelicans can overheat when they’re out in the hot sun, so they shed heat by facing away from the sun and fluttering their bill pouches, which contain many blood vessels to let body heat escape.

American white pelican embryos squawk before hatching to express discomfort if conditions get too hot or cold.

• It’s a myth that pelicans store fish in their pouch on their beak; rather, this is used when they regurgitate fish they’ve eaten and feed it to their young, according to the Lab.

Just one last thing! Please remember that October is coming up and all columns will probably feature creepy creatures.

Randy Mitchell is a freelance writer and photographer. He has been an avid birdwatcher, nature enthusiast and photographer for more than 40 years. Reach him at rnw@usa.com.

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